Image based qual – where is the informed consent?

11th March, 2014

Informed consent in writingIn our third entry in the imaged based qualitative research blog series (here are post 1 and post 2) we now follow up with a central question that any researcher must pose themselves: where is the consent given for third parties involved in the images, if any, and what ethical questions does this pose?

Images maintain their importance in many forms of research due to their capacity to signify multiple contextual layers that potentially enrich the understanding of the subject matter. Researchers will ultimately attempt to utilise images within research formats to discern a wider range of contextual awareness to enhance any textual information on offer. Interdisciplinary research practices can increasingly deploy a range of techniques to ensure they explore their subject matter to the full extent. Mobile research performs an exciting task for researchers by widening the scope of a piece of research whilst simultaneously engaging a wider audience base through multiple opportunity approaches. As well as this the broadening scope of digital proliferation throughout society has further enhanced digital research techniques and as such has heightened the stature of visually based research pieces.

As digital research evolves the debate surrounding the production and interpretation of the images collected continues. Where the researcher seeks to encourage image based qualitative feedback, they must also consider the implications of consent – or lack of – in the images they curate. As the standard paradigm for most research is text based, so the information disseminated can adhere to the widely accepted ethics maintained by myriad research institutions with participatory informed consent. In the pursuit of image based qualitative research how does the researcher seek valid consent from third parties present in an image?

At this point we should be clear of exactly what we are seeking consent from: an en masse picture of the fairground proves an impossible impasse; the picture of an elderly lady struggling with shopping poses the ethical question. Snap first and ask later? If the image developed is a central feature of the research but it compromises its subject what should take precedence? Guidelines state that the security, safety and dignity of the individual should take priority over any research method regardless of whether that compromises the research subject. Indeed, in some cases the validity of the research image could be called into question by lack of informed consent, as well as the contentiousness this creates: the bias and the explicit purpose of the image.

If we broaden our horizons to include third parties the question becomes problematic as the argument for informed consent potentially diminishes. Many culturally poignant images are shot en masse without target consent as in many situations it becomes impossible to effectively engage the individual. Should this put pay to images? No, it shouldn’t. Our infatuation with mobile and mobile photography cultivates a social state where many – but not all – are in fact unaware that anyone is taking a photograph, let alone that they are included in the background image. Careful consideration to locale, time and demographic could diminish the number of third party entities included but this in many cases would be impractical (though not infeasible). The third parties included in images for research function similarly to the target by contextualising the site, by maintaining and developing the narrative available for the researcher to analyse.

Digital mobile has morphed the relationship between researcher and individual, between lens and subject. Can research institutions ensure images they receive are subject to valid consent in the field? The maintenance of long term researchers with in-the-field abilities would be one provision but this would severely limit potential project scope. Taking into account participatory panels via digital mobile, researchers can communicate with their contributors throughout the research period, informing to the dos and don’ts, the why’s and wherefores. It is worth noting that whilst ethics and their interpretations have existed for many years, so has imagery and that imagery has been used and included in research – regardless of informed consent, inclusive of third parties. The collection and collation of images will continue through the digital mobile realm regardless of research or not. What researchers must continue to ask themselves relates not only to their compliance with ethics, but also to ‘what value does this add to my research?’